Turning from U.S. 90, I stare at the Marriott Courtyard and suddenly know I’ve been here before. The building’s different — I remember balconies. This façade is flat; that hotel was a Holiday Inn. Yet the parking lot, planted with lush vegetation, looks familiar. And I recognize the view — sandy beach, rolling waves, pier jutting into the Gulf.
One summer in the mid-’90s, my husband, Bob, and I drove from Pennsylvania to our adopted city, New Orleans. We’d taken a giant step toward retirement; we bought a house in the French Quarter. It would be home after our teaching careers ended.
Spring classes over, we headed south, detouring for a night in Gulfport, Mississippi. Having once lived in Galveston, Texas, we longed to smell sea air, to feel the rhythmic pulsing of waves.
Pulling up to the Holiday Inn, Bob climbed out.
“Try for a room in front,” I said.
He returned, smiling. “Scored.”
Later, we sat on our second-floor balcony, watching distant lights, hearing murmuring waves, planning our future.
I now gaze at the Courtyard. No balconies now, on any floor. No Bob, either. That retirement dream was short-lived.
Ten years ago, my ailing husband was airlifted out of flooded Memorial Hospital after the levees collapsed. Unable to return to New Orleans, we evacuated to Texas, where, two months later, Bob’s cancer caused his death.
Since then, I’ve been adjusting to life alone, grieving, missing him but trying to keep moving — because that’s what survivors do.
I switch on the TV inside my room at the Courtyard. The standard “Welcome” screen lists hotel amenities. On Channel 2, a grainy video shows the time: 6:38 a.m. CDT. The camera pans a courtyard with swimming pool full of blue water, surrounded by a structure with balconies — this hotel? A voiceover says, “We’re in Gulfport, Mississippi … still hours from the worst of this hurricane.”
Frothy waves wash a road. A man in a yellow slicker jumps from a vehicle and moves debris. Stop signs shimmy in the wind.
“There’s the Gulf of Mexico,” says the voice, “coming into our parking lot.”
Can this be a video loop of Katrina coming ashore, at this hotel? Tall palms bend half-over. Whining winds stir memories of sounds heard from Bob’s hospital window on Aug. 29, 2005. I stare mesmerized.
Water pours through the hotel’s front doors. Cars float outside, half-submerged in surge. The swimming pool has disappeared, its blue water swallowed by the muddy Gulf. A sign warns “No Lifeguard on Duty.” Violent winds increase. About 10 p.m., the voice confirms: videographers are filming “the Holiday Inn in Gulfport in the eye of Hurricane Katrina.”
I watch the slow destruction of the hotel where Bob and I spent that long-ago night. Water pours through door cracks and air-conditioner vents, stripping walls and setting furniture afloat. Waves push cars against glass doors until they break, ushering the cars into the lobby. Electrical wiring flaps in the wind. At 11:19 p.m., the yellow slicker man says, awed, “It has gutted the hotel.”
The credits roll.
Outside, evening sun sparkles on the placid Gulf. People are walking the beach. An ice cream truck moseys along Beach Boulevard. A red kite dips in the breeze, like a graceful seabird.
In the lobby, a magazine advertising a Katrina anniversary exhibit quotes a tourism official: “Ten years later, memories are beginning to fade.” I doubt that. No one who lived through Katrina’s fury will, I suspect, ever forget. Disaster memories, like my memories of losing Bob, aren’t far beneath the surface, even 10 years later.
Some evacuees never returned. Most have refused to let losses brought on by Katrina defeat them. Our homes and neighborhoods are being rebuilt, brick by brick, building by building, life by life — that’s what survivors do.
— Perry lives in New Orleans
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